This book is getting a lot of play. Well done to Claire Cameron for having a hard working marketing team (it helps that Cameron’s first novel, Bear, was widely praised and sold a bunch of copies). I’ve seen ads for the book in all sorts of places, write-ups in Chatelaine, I got a free copy from Random House to review.
Unfortunately talking a lot about how good a book is does not, in the end, make it good. (okay, this maxim is true for all things. alas). And The Last Neanderthal has good talking points. The hook: The book appears (at least to this untrained reader) to be well researched and offers fascinating and detailed accounts of neanderthal life and science. The premise: A pregnant neanderthal woman struggles to survive in a harsh climate with limited resources (oh! someone cue 1970s Margaret Atwood, we have another Can Lit survival tale!) and a pregnant archaeologist discovers the bones of a neanderthal woman next to the bones of a human man. The formal device: Episodes from each woman’s point of view as they discover things about themselves and their context. The thematic point: Modern humans and neanderthals are not all that different.
The problem: This thematic point is repeated over, and over, and over and over. In a hundred different subtle ways, and then in many obvious ways. Case and point: The last lines of the book are “She had the same skin as mine. The same blood ran through her veins. Our hearts both beat. All our differences drop away. I know that if I had ever been fortunate enough to meet her, I would look into her eyes and know her. And maybe she could know me. We are so much the same.” But of course you already get this point because throughout the narrative we have mirrored scenes (pregnancy, labour, post-partum life) and mirrored discoveries (e.g: as our archeologist (that I can’t remember her name right now should be evidence of something) posits that neanderthals were limited in their innovation of new ideas/tools because they lived in small groups, our neanderthal woman “Girl” makes the similar point, noticing in an abandoned camp that she’s travelled to that two skins has been sewn together to make a larger one, and thinks what a neat idea and how strange no one in her family had discovered it before.) and mirrored descriptions of landscape and mirrored EVERYTHING. It’s like the author and editor were concerned a…. less evolved brain might be reading the book and needed to. be. sure. that we wouldn’t – even for a second – doubt the point.
AND I’M NOT EVEN SURE THE POINT IS THAT REVELATORY! Okay, okay, I didn’t need to yell there. But if you’re going to spend the whole book making absolute sure I get the point, then it had better be an earth shattering revelation. Something like convincing me of the severity and urgency of climate change. Or the consequences of economic inequality on individuals and nations. Or a method for making my cats less demanding vis a vie dinner time. Is it a major social problem that modern humans doubt their relation to neanderthals? I suppose there’s something there about human arrogance in relation to the natural world, or human tendencies to hierarchize worth based on presenting bodies. Though that’s my supposition and not something drawn out in the book.
I’m exhausted from my mustered outrage. It’s really not that bad of a book. Just… not one you should go into expecting subtlety or nuance. Expect instead bison, snow and the constant reminder we are so much the same.